Saturday afternoon, I got a call from a friend. He knew that I had been planning to go with some students from Gettysburg College over to the Rec Park to watch the fireworks, and he was concerned. Did I know that there were dozens of armed, uniformed men walking around town? I confessed I did not. I hadn’t actually been in town much during the day, and while I had seen many motorcycles and trucks with enormous American flags (and Trump flags), that wasn’t unusual for Gettysburg at this time of year, and that was the extent of it. So, I thanked him for the information, and rather than take any unnecessary risks, we walked up to the Seminary hill and had a great time watching the fireworks from there.
And then the news report started coming in, culminating in Monday’s Gettysburg Times, with the headline, “Independence day bring hundreds of gun-toting patriots to Gettysburg.” (And, really, patriots? Please.) As I heard more and more stories, and saw more and more pictures, my initial shock and disbelief turn to outrage and anger. Who were these people? What did they think they were doing?
I did get at an answer to that question from at least one individual, who was interviewed by the Times and quoted in the paper yesterday. Gary Terwilliger, pictured on the front page, said that he came to Gettysburg “because he felt this was his chance to defend his country because he never joined the Army.”
First I would say that for anyone who wants to participate in efforts to defend their country, there are lots of good organizations that are helping support military troops overseas, and also veterans organizations who work helping veterans who have been wounded, who suffer from PTSD, and who need a variety of services. I’m sure those organizations would be happy for additional assistance.
However, owning a frequent shopper’s card at your local guns and ammo store and dressing up with heavy weaponry to come and sit in front of a monument is not defending anything—except an idea, a mythology that is already dead, or at least taking its last gasping breaths.
I’m talking about the false narrative of white supremacy, male patriarchy, and the lost cause. It is a story that so many were raised on, a story that is now being revealed to be a terrible lie, and a story that, as we saw this weekend, many are still desperately clinging to with cold, dead hands, to borrow the words of Charlton Heston.
Just stop for a moment and imagine if all of those men walking around with their AR-15s had been black. I don’t think you need to wonder what the response would have been; how they would’ve been viewed, and how they would have been treated. Let’s not pretend this is about patriotism, because it is not.
I don’t know exactly what it is about Gettysburg that seems to invite such public displays of defiance and aggression, where violence simmers just under the surface. The broad mantle of history and heritage opens the door to public displays of the Confederate flag, and the racist ideals that accompany it, that simply would not be tolerated in other communities.
But as someone who lives in Gettysburg and mostly likes living here, I want to say to all you self-described ‘patriots’ out there, take your guns and go home. You are not welcome here. This town and these monuments do not need any pseudo-defending by fake militia. What we need is simply more of what we already have: good historians, scholars, park employees and volunteers who tell a more complicated and nuanced story, not only of what happened here back in 1863, but also of the role Gettysburg played in the narrative the nation began to construct about itself in the post-war decades, up into the present. We also need better signage at the monuments, and maybe some new monuments as well, so that what happened on those hot July days can be seen and appreciated both for what they are, and for what they are not.
In this way, the carnage and death that took place here, and on battlefields all over the country; the carnage and the death that took place for decades following the end of the Civil War; and the carnage and the death it is still taking place today might not be in vain.
There is another story to tell, not only about America’s past but its present and its future as well. A story that includes repentance and reconciliation, a story that moves us toward hope instead of hate. Gettysburg is the perfect place to start telling that story. We don’t need guns and vigilantes to tell it.